The creative process always takes a person through twists and turns. The more personal, the more the path to the final product can take the creator on a journey. This was very much the case when Jordan Graham was tackling his feature, SATOR. In the film, a broken family is further torn apart by a mysterious death deep in the desolate forest they call home. Adam, guided by a pervasive sense of dread, hunts for answers only to learn that they are not alone; an insidious presence by the name of Sator has been observing his family, subtly influencing all of them for years in an attempt to claim them.
Ahead of the digital release of his film SATOR, Sarah got the chance to chat with writer/director Jordan Graham, where they discussed the personal nature of the film, the discovery of his grandmother’s history, and the logistical challenges he faced while making the film.
To start things off, what initially inspired you to create a story inspired by your family’s mental illness because that’s such a personal thing to really write about.
Jordan Graham: It started by accident. I had a story already that I was making a film and since I was kind of like, on a budget restraint I built a cabin in my mom’s backyard. And I wanted another location that was just as good-looking. So, I decided to use my grandmother’s house. And I was like, oh, well now that we’re going to be shooting here, maybe I can get her in the film as like a quick cameo. I have my friend who’s an actor, Michael Daniel, he’s one that plays Pete. In the very first scene in the film, with him and my grandmother, I told him that we’re going to do an improvisational scene. You’re going to come in there and pretend to be the grandson. You’re going to meet her on camera and maybe bring up spirits because that’s gonna get her talking. And then she came out and then he asked her about like, “Oh, I hear you’re sensing spirits around here,” or something. I forgot what he said.
But then she started talking about her automatic writings, and the voices that used to talk to her in her head, which I never knew about. After that day, I went home and started looking at the footage and trying to figure out how I can incorporate this with her automatic writing. In 1968, she got a hold of an Ouija board and that’s when Sator came into play, or how it was summoned through the Ouija board. She spent three months with him and he taught her how to do something called automatic writings, which is this [shows automatic writing scriptures]. She would sit there and just let Sator speak through her and she would write stuff down.
I didn’t know any of that before making this film. I asked my family, “What went on here?” They were too young to know about or remember all this. My mom was thirteen at the time, and I asked, “Is there any more automatic writings around that I could possibly use and in the film,” and she said my grandmother burned those years ago. But then I was like, I have something really unique here with my grandmother and speaking about the voices in her head and the automatic writings, I want to pursue this. I’ve never seen or heard anything about that in a film before, this is going to make it unique, this is going to make it personal. And so then it was like okay, now how am I going to incorporate this in the story I already have?
So, I spent a week rewriting the script to the clips that I already had. And then after, when I feel like I got the story solid, I went back and shot more of my grandmother, more improvisational stuff. A lot of it didn’t work with the story that I was already trying to tell at that point, so, I’d have to take breaks and rewrite. That happened maybe at least five different times. It wasn’t until post-production, when I was already done shooting the film, that the entity Sator came in. I always knew about the entity of Sator just, he was always a guardian to my grandmother.
Then [the] dementia got really bad for my grandmother, and she couldn’t stay in her house anymore. So, we moved her into a care home. We were cleaning out her house and I was in the backroom and in the back closet there, that’s where I found a box full of those automatic writings and the 1000-page journal of her documenting every single day with him for three months until she ended up in a psychiatric hospital because of it. I thought I found a goldmine here which, I would love to adapt that journal one day into a film. But it was like, Okay, well, I’m not doing that now and already basically done with this film as far as shooting goes. But it was like, now I need to incorporate Sator in this somehow.
So, I went back to her. I was able to get her to speak about him for almost everything that I needed. I went back to her probably a couple, maybe three times and the last time dementia made her almost completely forget about him. It took like, 40 minutes of footage just to get her to say like three sentences about him. That’s kind of the process of how it came about to be into the film. I was just very excited to have something that’s personal in there and to be able to memorialize my grandmother like this. In reading through her journal, she wanted to publish that journal. When she wrote it, it reads like a story because she wanted to…I feel like she wanted to be famous. I feel like that, just reading through that she really wanted attention.
Your story and the film really hit home because my family has a bunch of strange illnesses that we all just navigate through behind closed doors.
Jordan Graham: It has affected certain people that way with the dementia aspect that I was not expecting. I wasn’t going into this project trying to make a film about mental health. It just organically became that and it is really kind of cool seeing people and their reactions and how much it has hit them. I have a friend that he was only able to watch about 10 minutes of it because he gets voices in his head too. And he couldn’t watch anymore of it.
When it came to casting, what was that process like? Because you said you had your friend who played Pete be involved. Since there was a more personal nature to the script, what were you aiming for?
Jordan Graham: Well, all of the cast members besides the mother in the film, the one that levitates at the beginning, have been friends of mine for years. The lead was a skateboard buddy of mine and I’ve known him since high school. The Pete with the beard, the big beard, the one we set on fire at the end there, he’s been my best friend since I was 13 years old. And so, we made films together for a little while there and then he just been acting. He’s been in everything that I’ve done, and I’m still gonna try figuring out how to keep putting him in stuff. The character of Deborah? Aurora, I’ve known since high school as well. And so it was like, I wrote the parts for them. I didn’t have any connections then. I still don’t as far as actors go, but they are the best actors that I know around, right? In my circle. They know me. I wanted people that weren’t gonna put any more pressure on me. We can go out to film, and if they’re not acting the way I want to, if it’s getting too much pressure for them as well, we can just hang out. Gabe and Michael, one of the first times they acted together, they were laughing the whole time. They couldn’t take it seriously. We had to stop and have a beer and just chill out, then we would go at it again. But they do have their limitations and I definitely wrote to their limitations, which it’s nice now because I’m writing other scripts, and I don’t have anybody in mind and that is really freeing just to not have to cater to people’s limitations.
For the physical representation of Sator, if I remember correctly, they are featured in the film in images?
Jordan Graham: There is Sator, who is a ram skull at the end, but that was just a fluke. I shot that before I even knew that Sator was going to be in the film. So I had this leader in there. Then after that, I was done, I was like, Oh, look there is Sator up there. That’s pretty cool. And then the other ones that were like the disciples, which they wore this thing. [lifts up mask]
Jordan Graham: Yeah. I only made one costume because I couldn’t afford to. So, I had to do camera trickery to make it look like there were multiple, but I could only afford to make one. Sorry. You haven’t even asked your question yet.
Haha. Don’t worry about it. My question was when you were conceptualizing the physical representation, did you pull from the journals or did you just make it up?
Jordan Graham: Inspiration-wise, I love The Blair Witch Project and I would have preferred not to see the entity at the end, like how in The Blair Witch Project, I would have done the same thing, but since the film is, it’s a patient film is how some people call it and I knew that going in and so I feel like I would be cheating the audience if I didn’t give them something.
So it’s like, how do I figure out how to show something but not show something and I didn’t want to have like a rubber mask or anything like that. So having everything like the creature, whatever this entity is, whether it’s like a spirit or if it’s a human or a creature I don’t know. Whatever it is, it took from the forest and wore everything. That’s why in the film, it’s very quiet so you don’t hear, besides the crows, you don’t hear any animals or anything in there. And to me, that’s because whatever these creatures are they killed everything in that area of the forest and wore it. I was just trying to think of what’s the most organic-looking thing that is not going to seem like if they’re wearing a costume or like a rubber mask or something like that. Ever since, I knew going into that a long time ago but then, ever since then, there have been movies with so many deer skulls. But oh well, that’s just how it goes.
You may have already answered this but because you infused a documentary-style with the actual horror, what logistical challenges did you run into in trying to like merge all that together?
Jordan Graham: Well, that’s where I had to take week-long breaks to figure it out. Trying to merge those two was probably the hardest part about the entire film. Like mentally draining trying to figure it out. There are times where I had to, I mean, those weeks that I would take breaks [to go] walking, my fiance and I, we would go and take long walks and try to work out how I can get this to work. It was definitely really draining, trying to make it all make sense with the story that I was already trying to do. So, that was like the difficult aspect of trying to make this story make sense.
But then like, you’re saying, like, old footage, you see that the black and white footage in the film? That was real footage from my family from like 30 years ago now. My mom got a bunch of old Hi8 tapes transferred to DVD and I was just going through them one day, I wasn’t looking for anything for the film, I was just watching them. And I ended up finding a birthday. What was so great about it is the house looked exactly the same and my grandmother happened to be on one side of the screen and my grandfather was on the other side of the screen. That left the middle section open for me to create my own scene. So, I bought the same camera and I bought the same tapes and made presents that look similar and a similar-looking cake and was able to shoot my own scene and incorporate that old footage in there.
I didn’t use a DVD transfer. I went and I had to figure out how to get it onto the computer because that technology is old now. So, I was able to get it on there [in] the highest quality I could and then I blew it up to 4K. I have a friend in videography and he was looking at the Hi8 tapes and he’s like, “How did you get it to look so good?”
Just having a moment of nostalgia there. Just we’re the last generation who know what that is. [laughs]
Jordan Graham: Yeah, I love that quality, though. The Hi8. There’s Hi8 tapes and there’s digital 8 tapes. They’re the same tape. But I started off on Hi8 tapes and then, because I’ve been trying to make films now for twenty-one years, moved on to digital eight tapes. And then I moved on the mini DV, but that digital eight, and the Hi8, even though it’s the same tape, just the analog quality of it is…it’s so gritty in texture. I love the quality of the Hi8 tape.
And I think they’re making a bit of a comeback. So, that’s something to look forward to. Switching gears, because of how organic everything was, in terms of the story development, I assume that’s a good chunk of why it took seven years to make the film. Yeah?
Jordan Graham: Nah. That was only a year. I started shooting the film in 2015 and finished it in 2016. I had the lead actor, I had him on contract for one year, and then after that, there are some pickups, but it was mainly post-production. The first year was writing, trying to find funding, and collecting a bunch of props all at the same time. Then when I figured out how I was going to pay for this thing, I built the cabin in two months, and then the rest is post-production. Everything that you hear in the film, besides my grandmother speaking, I did in post-production. I had to record everything from scratch and I didn’t want to have other people’s sound. No sound libraries or anything.
So, that took a year and four months just to record audio, and then coloring the film, which took 1000 hours to do. I was in post-production for a long time in isolation, cutting a lot of people off. I was finished when I went to Fantasia, but I thought I was finished then, ever since Fantasia I’ve been still trying to get it ready for release and there’s a lot of things that I have to do to deliver it. There were about six months there where I was out of isolation and this is great and then COVID hit and now back in it again, but at least I’m not working on the film anymore at this moment.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.